Ever since reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods seven ago, I’ve wanted to through-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). Bryson’s account isn’t all birds and trees and sunshine, however. It largely focuses on the blisters and blood, and cast of often-sketchy characters he meets on his grueling trek. Yet through it all, he paints a beautiful portrait of one of America’s greatest recreational and conservationist achievements.
Conceived in 1921 by Benton MacKaye as a “project in regional planning,” the AT reached completion in 1937. It begins in Springer Mountain, Georgia, and runs 2,179 miles, culminating in Mount Katahdin, Maine. It traverses14 states along the way, including Virginia.
I’ve always been an avid hiker and camper, but I’ve never managed to find time to do the full trail. In May, while planning a business trip to Virginia, I realized it was time to face facts: I was 41, recovering from a lengthy illness, with a bad back, and an anemic bank account. Taking the three months or so required to through-hike the trail simply wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Fortunately, there are alternatives for thwarted ambitions and weak lumbar regions like mine. The AT extends 100 miles through Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, making it possible to day-hike sections, or connect to them via the park’s other 399 miles of trails.
%Gallery-98597%Thus, my boyfriend (who has bad knees to go with his bad back) and I decided to camp for a few days in the park. Our sole purpose was to find the best AT day hikes situated in, or near, Loft Mountain campground, 26 miles from the southern entrance at Rockfish Gap. Then we’d continue up Skyline Drive-the famed scenic road that runs the length of the park-to the northern entrance at Front Royal. We decided to bring only the bare minimum of food (coffee, peanut butter, and a loaf of bread), to see what the park camp stores stock for ravenous through-hikers on a tight budget. During our visit, we discovered that cheating the AT is a great option for outdoor enthusiasts short on time, money, or fully-functional body parts.
We arrived at Loft Mountain on a hot, overcast afternoon. It’s a huge campground, but it was nearly deserted during our mid-week visit. All four of the park campgrounds cater to RV’s (something we wished to avoid), but after checking out the other places, we found Loft Mountain the best if you’re looking for full amenities, sites ranging from hike-in to RV, and overall scenic splendor. Outside of the campground proper, there’s a store, sewage disposal facility, coin-operated showers, laundry, telephone, mail drop, and gas station, and an amphitheater for weekend ranger programs. The AT trail runs along the eastern border of the campground.
Reservations are strongly recommended in high season, which is Memorial to Labor Day, and October, when fall colors are at their peak. The campgrounds also have a set number of first-come, first-serve sites. There are fire pits, but the park prohibits outside wood to prevent the spread of the Emerald Ash Borer beetle: purchase wood for five dollars a bundle at all campgrounds and stores, or collect deadwood for free. Tent sites are spacious, clean, level, and mostly devoid of back-puncturing debris. We selected a sandy tent site in the more isolated “A” section, which overlooks the pastoral Shenandoah Valley. It was located above a series of equally well-maintained, but smaller, sites down a short foot path just steps off the AT (the campground has 44 walk-ins). A large, white-tailed deer, antlers covered in velvet, ambled out of the bushes near our site as we unloaded.
It’s an easy, one-and-a-quarter mile hike on the AT from the campground to the popular Doyles River Falls trailhead (mile marker 81.1 on Skyline Drive).The Doyles River trail runs along a wooded creek, which keeps things cool on steamy summer days. It’s an easy-to-moderate downhill walk (three miles, roundtrip), through mossy, fern-shrouded terrain thick with wildflowers and oak-hickory forest. The trail is well-maintained, although it could have a better marker at a major junction (hang a right just past the spring). Unfortunately, the falls were essentially non-existent, due to global warming or whatever, but it’s such a pretty, peaceful hike, no matter.
On the way back, we stopped at the camp store. It’s well-stocked; you certainly won’t lack for basic necessities or food. There’s a lot of backpacker-friendly options: pasta, rice, canned meaty things. If, however, you’re health conscious (I am), there’s mighty slim pickings. I’m not dissing the store, which is great by national park/campground standards. Camp stores obviously aren’t created to cater to the palates of demanding gourmands or health foodists, so pack accordingly. There are a lot of black bears in the park, as well, so whether you’re car or backcountry camping, you’ll need to store your food accordingly.
Dinner options included a minuscule selection of sad, floppy, produce, and some grillable meat items, such as anemic pork chops, the ubiquitous hot dogs and dubious burger meat. To save cash, we went the processed meat route. Which is how we ended up eating “pressed and formed” deli turkey (49 cents a package!) and processed “cheese food” sandwiches on squishy wannabe-Wonder Bread. In retrospect, we should have splurged on s’mores makings, which would have been great with the Bulleit bourbon Boyfriend had thought to bring from home (because, while pressed turkey is one thing, cheap bourbon is another, and life is too short to drink it).
On day two, we hiked to 81-foot Lewis Falls (moderate, 3.3 mile loop, half of it uphill), outside of Big Meadows campground/Byrd Visitor Center. The center is a nice interpretive facility with camp store and restaurant (tip: give the park restaurants a miss). The trailhead off Tanner’s Ridge Overlook (mile marker 51.5) is tricky to find. Instead, drive into the amphitheater parking, where there’s another trailhead.
If you hike the downhill loop to the falls, there’s a well-marked junction to the AT. I highly recommend a detour, even if it’s just a mile (you’ll need to backtrack). It’s a particularly beautiful section, but it also gives you a good sense of how solitary and meditative the AT can be. At the falls proper, there’s a stellar view of the Shenandoah Valley, dotted with barns, silos, and farmhouses.
On our last day we stopped at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, near the northern entrance, and took the one-mile Fox Hollow Trail. It leads to the ruins of some old homesteads and a tiny cemetery. The homesteading heritage of the park is fascinating; it was initially formed from more than 1,000 privately-owned land tracts ranging from forest and pasture, to orchards. If you want to delve more deeply into the history of these early residents, other good trails with homesite ruins include Hannah Run at mile marker 35.1, Nicholson Hollow at 38.4, and Rose River Loop at 40.4. The visitor centers also have excellent books and exhibits on this topic.
For Shenandoah National Park backcountry information and regulations, go here.
My trip was sponsored by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.